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Countering age biases during the interview process

Q: I am in my mid-50s and feel like I am being discriminated against in job interviews. How do I show to a potential employer that I could outwork any 30 year old with the same skill set? This employment market is difficult but even more difficult if you have a few gray hairs. Please don’t give me legal advice, just practical advice.

A: Unfortunately, discrimination does exist. And it may be impacting you personally in this job market.

But let me offer some practical counsel on how you can move an interviewer from thinking about your age to focusing on your capabilities. There are stereotypes associated with more mature job seekers. A short list of some of those stereotypes might include:

- being inflexible or rigid
- having outdated skills or work style
- being slow to pick up new ideas, concepts or skills
- working more effectively in a traditional, hierarchical environment (rather than a collaborative, open environment)

Knowing that these are common stereotypes, how can you demonstrate that these misconceptions don’t describe you as a candidate?

1. Dress and accessorize in a current way. Leave your 20-year old suit home. (Or better yet, donate it!) Walk through an office park or office building and observe how professionals are dressing. There is some variation between industries for sure. Ask a trusted colleague for candid feedback on your professional dress. Be willing to accept it and adapt if needed. Carry yourself in a confident and energetic manner. A 2010 www.boston.com article on the topic might be helpful - http://www.boston.com/jobs/galleries/interviewdress2010/.

I recently had to accept some difficult criticism from a family member regarding my style of casual dress. On a recent daytrip, I was told, “Ditch the fanny pack. It makes you look frumpy.” Hmmm… that feedback was hard to take. However, I no longer wear the fanny pack!

2. Be able to demonstrate that you have current skills. Talk about current technologies and trends in your industry. Don’t remember and recall days of the past when mainframes, live operators and little pink message slips were commonplace in most business environments. Avoid comments like: “I remember using a typewriter!” Although experience is helpful, employers are also looking for forward-thinking employees.

3. Provide examples where learning a new skill or talent was exciting. Weave into your interview real-life examples from your work or even personal life which show that you are vibrant, enthusiastic and energetic. I have a 60-plus year old sister who has both a bike and a kayak. She is the epitome of good health and energy. If you have similar interests, mention them in a casual way. (“Oh yes, I know exactly where your office is located. I enjoy the bike trail that runs behind your building almost every weekend in the spring.”)

4. Share examples of when you worked in a high energy, collaborative and unstructured environment. (“When I worked at ABC Inc., it was a high energy and very casual environment. It was an incredibly fun place to work. There was a group of us who took night classes at XYZ College right down the street.”)

If you knock down early age-related assumptions about you as a job seeker, an interviewer is more likely to re-focus on your skills, capabilities and potential as an employee. Discrimination does exist, no doubt. Neither one of us can eliminate it in the employment market. You can, however, be mindful of the common stereotypes, and try to re-direct the focus to your professional work experience and capabilities.

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